Do children lose their guardian angels if they reject Christ?

Q. I’ve heard it suggested that children lose their guardian angels if they reject Christ once they reach the “age of accountability.” I would be interested to know what you think.

The Bible doesn’t say explicitly that children have guardian angels. I’ll discuss in a moment where that idea comes from. But let’s suppose that they do. What would be the purpose of that?

For one thing, angels would be assigned to guard children from danger, because children are inexperienced, they lack information, they don’t always reason well, and so left to themselves they can make unsafe choices. However, I think that beyond that, angels would be assigned to children to help steer them towards faith, using their mysterious invisible influence towards that end. This would be consistent with what the book of Hebrews says about angels, that they are “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation.”

If that is the case, then I can’t imagine an angel abandoning a child, or for that matter God taking an angel away from a child, because they didn’t make use of an opportunity to accept Christ. This would only make the child less likely to make use of the next opportunity that came along. I’ve just suggested that the very reason for assigning an angel in the first place is that children typically don’t make the best choices because they are immature and not fully informed. So I don’t see why God or an angel would regard a choice that a child made when they barely knew right from wrong (i.e. they’d just reached the “age of accountability”) as so fully informed, mature, and therefore definitive that influences that might help lead them to salvation should be withdrawn, as if of no further use. If anything, I can imagine God sending more influences into a child’s life to help them understand their loving Savior better so that they would embrace him at a future opportunity.

The idea that children do have guardian angels comes from something that Jesus says to his disciples in response to their question about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The Gospel of Matthew records that he called a little child over to sit among them and then said, “Those who humble themselves like this little child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus then went on to tell them,  “Be careful that you don’t look down on one of these little ones. I say to you that their angels in heaven are always looking into the face of my Father who is in heaven.” (This means that the angels “always have access” to the Father in heaven, as some translations put it.)

If these are guardian angels, then presumably this would mean not only that the angels pray for the children, but also that they protest any mistreatment and ask God to punish it. It’s possible, however, that by this point in Jesus’ teaching, “little ones” means not “children” but “young believers” or “simple believers.” Even if it does mean “children,” it’s not necessarily the case that there is one angel assigned to each child. Instead, there could be a group of angels whose role was to pray for the salvation and protection of children.

We simply don’t have enough to go on to make a definitive case from the Bible that there are or are not guardian angels. But as I’ve said, if there are, I can’t imagine God pulling a guardian angel away just when one was needed most—when a child failed to recognize and answer the loving call of their Savior. It seems to me that instead the guardian angel would roll up its sleeves, rub its hands together, and say, “Let’s see if we can’t help some more here.”

The traditional role of guardian angels, to protect children from danger, is illustrated in this 1920s print by the German artist Lindberg. Such pictures were often hung above children’s beds.

Where did the “Legion” of demons go after the swine died?

Q. After Jesus cast the “Legion” of demons into the swine, where did the demons go after the swine died?

As I discuss in the post linked below, it seems most likely that these demons would then have roamed the earth looking for other beings to occupy. The Bible doesn’t tell us as much as we’d like to know about how these things work, but it does give us clear warnings not to open ourselves up to evil influences, and we need to take those warnings to heart.

Why didn’t Jesus destroy demons when he cast them out?

Why were the disciples afraid when Jesus appeared?

Duccio di Buoninsegna,
Duccio di Buoninsegna, “Jesus’ Appearance Behind Locked Doors,” 1308-11.

Q. Why were the disciples afraid when Jesus appeared?

I’m assuming you mean to ask why the disciples were afraid when Jesus appeared to them after his resurrection. Luke explains in his gospel that they were frightened and terrified because they thought they were seeing a ghost. This was even after they’d gotten several independent reports that Jesus had risen from the dead, and even though he said to them, as soon as he arrived, “Peace be with you.” But fear is actually not an unusual reaction when someone in the Bible encounters a visitor from the spiritual world.

Gideon, for example, realizes that he’s been speaking with the angel of the Lord when the angel first sets on fire the food he has served him, just by touching it with tip of his staff, and then vanishes. God has to tell Gideon, “Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die.”

Similarly, when a mighty angel appears to Daniel, he collapses on the ground, and then gets up “trembling.” (Understandably, because the angel’s “body was like topaz, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude.“) Daniel, too, is told, “Do not be afraid.”

When the angel of the Lord comes to tell Zechariah that his prayers have been answered and he and his wife are about to have a son (John the Baptist), even though this is good news, Zechariah is “startled and gripped with fear.” The angel reassures him, “Do not be afraid.”

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he once walked on the Sea of Galilee to join the disciples in their boat far out on the water. Matthew records that “when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.'”

And in the book of Revelation, John reports an experience similar to Daniel’s. He says that when he first saw Jesus in his exalted glory, “I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid.‘”

I think it would only be natural for us humans to be startled and alarmed if we encountered a heavenly visitor. But it’s very encouraging to read in the Bible how God always reassures each frightened person by saying, “Don’t be afraid.”  This helps us realize that whenever God steps into our lives—even if we don’t experience a supernatural appearance, but instead sense a divine hand at work in our circumstances—we can be confident that God has come to bring about good, not to harm us. So even if we’re startled (and maybe it’s good for us to be shaken up by the reality of spiritual things from time to time), we don’t need to be afraid.

Why didn’t Jesus destroy demons when he cast them out?

Q. In any of the situations where Jesus cast out demons, why didn’t he kill them so they would not enter another person?

Matthew’s gospel relates how, when Jesus was casting out demons in the region of the Gadarenes, they cried out, “Son of God, what do you want with us? Have you come here to punish us before the time for us to be judged?” The encounters between Jesus and demons described in the gospels are typically brief and cryptic, but we can at least tell from this one that God has set a time for demons to be judged and punished. But as these demons knew, that time had not yet come during the ministry of Jesus, and they successfully appealed to be sent into a herd of pigs instead.

The reasons why Jesus allowed such demons to continue to roam the earth, at least for a while, have to do, I believe, with the need for there to be freedom in order for people to make the choice to love God and others. God could have removed all sources of suffering and discord in the world, but this would have been at the cost of making true freedom impossible and depriving the world of the fruits of freedom, including love, courage, creativity, and so forth.

One of Jesus’ parables shows how God wanted people to respond instead to the fact that demons remained at large even after they had been cast out of their victims.  Jesus said, “What happens when an evil spirit comes out of a person? It goes through dry areas looking for a place to rest. But it doesn’t find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives there, it finds the house empty. The house has been swept clean and put in order. Then the evil spirit goes and takes with it seven other spirits more evil than itself. They go in and live there. That person is worse off than before.”

Jesus actually told this parable about his own generation as a whole, to illustrate how, by rejecting his true message of the kingdom of God, they were leaving themselves open to the influence of false messiahs who would lead them astray into destruction.  (This happened during the two Jewish-Roman wars in the decades that followed.) But for the parable to make this point by application, its story needs to make a valid point of its own, and that is that people who have been freed from a demon are responsible themselves to fill their lives with godly and wholesome influences that will discourage any demons from ever returning.

In other words, while Jesus didn’t destroy the demons he cast out, he brought the truth of the kingdom of God, and ultimately he sent the Holy Spirit, to occupy the place the demons had left so that they would never try to fill it again.  And I think this is how we need to think about all of the evil and destructive influences around us as we live in these “in-between times,” when the kingdom of God has already been inaugurated but not yet completely established.  God has not yet removed all these influences from the earth.  But he has sent other influences that can effectively displace them in our own lives, and increasingly in our world, if we recognize and accept our responsibility to welcome and cultivate these life-giving endowments.

A painting by Vangelo di Marco of Jesus casting out the demons from the Gerasene demoniac. Why didn’t Jesus destroy the demons instead of allowing them to remain at large afterwards?

Can Satan hear our thoughts?

Q. Someone once told me that God hears our silent prayers, but that Satan can not, and that if we want to address Satan, we must speak the words to him out loud.  From what you know, is that a fair assessment?

My first thought in response to your question is, “Why would anyone want to address Satan?”  I know that in some circles there is a practice of “claiming authority” over Satan, commanding him to depart, etc., but I’d be very careful of that kind of thing.

I don’t recall any place in the Bible where a human being directly addresses Satan.  (Jesus said to Peter, who didn’t want him to go to the cross, “Get behind me, Satan,” but that was actually a reference to Peter’s motives—“You do not have in mind the concerns of God”—not a direct address to Satan.)

Jude warns us that even the archangels do not address the devil on their own:  “Even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil . . . did not dare to condemn him for slander himself but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’”  So I would not address Satan at all, either in spoken words or in silent thoughts.

A wise man, an authority on spiritual warfare, once told me that instead, “The best way to chase away the darkness is to turn on the lights.”  As he saw it, when our individual lives and community gatherings are full of love, joy, holiness, and praise, the forces of darkness simply don’t hang around.

But perhaps another concern here is whether Satan can listen in on our thoughts in order to get information he can use to tempt and entrap us.  Here’s what we need to realize:  Satan is a finite being.

We often speak of him as if he had infinite attributes like God—omniscience (knowing everything), omnipresence (being everywhere at the same time), etc.  When people all over the world address Satan as if he were present with them, that suggests omnipresence.  When lots of people say “the devil made me do it” they’re suggesting that he has comprehensive knowledge to use in temptation. But he doesn’t.  Satan’s knowledge and presence are limited because he is a finite created being.

So where is the devil, if he’s not omnipresent?  At one point the Bible depicts him standing before God and accusing us.  (The word for “devil” in Greek is diabolos or “accuser.”)  At another point the Bible says he “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  But no matter where he is at any given moment, he is finite, and so not able to be everywhere and know everything.

What we are probably encountering instead when we feel as if “the devil is tempting us” is the continuum that the Bible refers to as “the world, the flesh, and the devil.”  Wrong thoughts, attitudes, and actions are fueled by “the world” (the planet-wide conspiracy to value things other than as God values them), “the flesh,” (everything in us that resists the cross, that is, living a sacrificial life for God), and “the devil” (which to my mind includes all evil supernatural beings, in league with one another and their leader against God).

I don’t think we should spend a lot of time trying to tease out which part of the world-flesh-devil continuum we’re up against at any given point.  Instead, we should “turn on the lights” by using our wills to choose positive thoughts, attitudes, and actions.  As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

 

Why did Paul silence a spirit in Philippi that was speaking the truth about him?

Q.  When Paul was in Philippi, he commanded a fortune-telling spirit in the name of Jesus Christ to leave a woman who had been following his team for many days shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”  This raises a lot of questions.  Couldn’t it have been considered that the spirit was doing good, in that the woman was announcing the way to ‘the Way’? If Paul were going to silence the spirit, why didn’t he do this sooner? On the other hand, why didn’t Paul just let the woman be, if he’d already put up with her for so long?
 
Seems to be a good lesson here, insofar as “testing the spirits” is concerned.  Can you think of other examples, perhaps where people might even claim that they “have a word from the Lord,” but those people should instead be silenced—some immediately, and others maybe after many days?  Seems like a tall order for leaders of the church today—or any time for that matter—to be able to discern.

I think Paul finally silenced the spirit when he realized that all the attention was going to “that crazy woman shouting”—even though she was shouting a valuable truth—rather than to the message he and his colleagues were preaching.  I think Paul waited as long as he did because he recognized precisely what you asked about—that the spirit might be considered to be making a positive contribution.  But eventually, I believe, he recognized that it was doing more harm than good, distracting rather than attracting.  I think that in all of this Paul showed both patience and discernment of exemplary quality.

As for today, you’re right, it calls for very fine discernment to know when a factually truthful message is being delivered in such a way that it’s doing more harm than good.  We need to consider not just the content but the effect of words and their tone, expression, and spirit.

Here’s one example—I once attended a public prayer meeting where a participant went on and on, praying for valuable things, but essentially hogging all the time and not giving anyone else a chance to contribute.  Finally one of the leaders respectfully asked him to stop and give others an opportunity to pray as well.  The man realized his fault and immediately said “Bless you, brother” to the leader, very humbly, and went silent.  That felt like good discernment all around.

Things get more complicated when it comes to matters like doctrinal disputes, social hot-button issues, and matters of practice on which the Christian community is divided.  One person might feel compelled to speak (to “bear witness to the truth”), while others might feel they were doing more harm than good by the way they were speaking.  A tall order for discernment, indeed, but a challenge that church leaders must try to meet, with fear and trembling, and with close reliance on the Holy Spirit.

Does praying in tongues keep the devil from eavesdropping?

Q. I’m reading a book on prayer and one thing it says is that speaking in tongues is a purer form of worship because it excludes our carnal thoughts. It says that another benefit is that Satan will not understand the language. Wouldn’t Satan be well versed in all languages?

When it comes to questions like this, I think it’s important to follow the principle, “Do not go beyond what is written,” as Paul advised the Corinthians. He meant not to select or reject teachers based on issues that the Scriptures do not identify as essential. But I think his advice captures equally well the importance of making the case for or against spiritual practices based on what the Bible actually says about them, not on anything the Bible doesn’t say.

The question here has to do with “speaking in tongues,” that is, speaking in a language that one has acquired directly as a gift from God, rather than through upbringing, immersion, or formal study.  This really is the “gift of languages,” and that is what I will call it in the rest of this post, since the Greek word for “tongue” and “language” is the same and the sense of the word in this context is clearly “language,” as in, “my mother tongue is English.”  I personally believe that this gift is attested not just in the Scriptures, but also throughout church history, and that it remains available to believers today.

Maronite Pentecost icon

As I understand it from Scripture, the gift of languages is given for at least threepurposes.  One is to allow the good news about Jesus to be proclaimed in a language that the hearers will understand, even if the messengers don’t know that language.  This happened most famously on the day of Pentecost, when “Jews from every nation under heaven” gathered in Jerusalem and “each one heard their own language being spoken” as the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to speak those languages. But I’ve also heard present-day missionaries describe how, when they went to a region whose language or dialect they didn’t speak, their words supernaturally came out in the form their listeners could understand.

Another purpose for the gift of languages, according to the Bible, is to bring an authoritative word to a gathering of Jesus’ followers.  When a message is spoken in a language that is given as a supernatural gift, and it is then interpreted by someone who has that ability equally as a gift, this attests to the divine source of the message.  Even so, Paul tells the Corinthians, “The others should weigh carefully what is said,” testing it against the wisdom and teaching of the Scriptures before accepting it as a word from God.  I believe we are given an example of this process in the Old Testament when Daniel interprets the handwriting on the wall.

The third purpose for the gift of languages that I find explained in the Bible is for prayer.  I believe the rationale for this application of the gift is the same one that Paul gives in Romans in the case of prayer that takes the form of wordless yearning: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us.”  In this case God gives not just the language, but the words themselves, as a spiritual gift that helps a person pray more effectively when they otherwise wouldn’t know what to pray for.

But notice what the Bible doesn’t say about this.  It doesn’t say anywhere that praying in a divinely granted language is some form of “secret code” between us and God that the devil can’t understand.  So I don’t think we should claim this as a benefit of the practice.  “Not going beyond what is written” in this case saves us from having to speculate about how many languages the devil understands and this frees our energies for reflection on what the Bible actually does say.

As for whether praying in a divinely granted language “excludes our carnal thoughts,” it makes sense that this would be the case, but we should not see this as an unmixed blessing.  Paul notes that “if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.”  In other words, because he does not understand the language he is speaking, he is not learning from the Holy Spirit’s example how to pray more genuinely and effectively in situations like the one he’s facing. 

Paul explains in his second letter to the Corinthians how important it is to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” While it might be advantageous in the short term, particularly in a dire situation that we don’t even know how to pray about, to bypass our carnal thoughts and immature tendencies, in the long term we are called to develop a spiritual mind and mature character.  In other words, if gifting us with a prayer language is one of the ways in which the “Spirit helps us in our weakness,” that should not be something that keeps us from ever addressing that weaknesses.  We need to take our carnal thoughts captive and make them obedient to Christ, not continually bypass them.  But I think we’ll find that the more mature and obedient we become, the more we will follow Christ into situations where we desperately need His help–so there will be a positive self-reinforcing cycle here.

All things considered, I wouldn’t say from the Bible that praying in a divinely granted language is “purer” or “better” than other forms of prayer. But it is one genuine expression of a gift that God wants to be exercised by those to whom it is given to build up the whole body of Christ.

I hope this is helpful!

Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wrestling match?

Q. Today in my Quiet Time I read in Genesis about God wrestling with Jacob. I was really puzzled where it says, “When the man saw that he could not overpower him . . .” I don’t understand how God could not overpower a human being. God took on human form, but didn’t He still have the strength God would have? What do you think it means?

Also, I know God and Jesus have taken human form before, and I was wondering, has the Holy Spirit ever done so? I don’t remember any passages where He does, but are there any?

Eugene Delacroix, “Jacob Wrestling With the Angel”

The so-called “man” in this episode who wrestles with Jacob is just like the “angel of the LORD” who appears in other Old Testament passages, though he’s not specifically called that here. He is a “theophany” or manifestation of God on earth. Jacob recognizes this and says, “I have seen God face to face” (in human form, at least).

It’s clear that this “man” has supernatural powers available to him, because to bring the wrestling match to an end, he’s able to wrench Jacob’s hip out of its socket simply by touching it. But he has apparently chosen not to use these powers over the course of the match, in order to demonstrate something. (This is analogous to the way that Jesus, to provide an example and model for us, “emptied himself” of his divine powers such as omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence in order to live a perfect human life through obedience to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.)

So what was God trying to demonstrate in this wrestling match by limiting himself to human powers? When he blesses and renames Jacob he says, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” So he had probably been giving Jacob an opportunity to demonstrate, in a dramatic way on a single occasion, the tenacity and endurance God had seen him develop throughout 20 difficult years in exile. Those years had transformed Jacob from a conniving and grasping young man to the mature leader of a large clan who was now willing to face the brother he’d cheated and make things right with him. (In my Genesis study guide, I show how Jacob was not only reconciled with his brother Esau shortly after this, he also made restitution for much of what he’d stolen from him.)

In his reflections on “The End for Which God Created the World,” the early American theologian Jonathan Edwards observes that since God’s perfections are “in themselves excellent,” it was also “an excellent thing” for them to become known. It seems to me that in the same way, God considers it “an excellent thing” for the character qualities Jacob has developed to become known, and so he arranges (personally!) for a demonstration of them, in the form of this wrestling match. (We might similarly see some of our struggles in life as an opportunity that God is giving us to demonstrate the character we have been developing.)

We can only speculate about how the match ever got started. Perhaps the man blocked the route that Jacob wanted to take and Jacob had to try to wrestle him out of the way. Or perhaps Jacob sensed who he was from the start and grappled with him in order to obtain a blessing (just as he says at the end, “I won’t let you go until you bless me”).

But however the match began, it’s probably more significant to ask exactly what the man means when he tells Jacob, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” How can a person “overcome” God? I don’t think it just means, “You wrestled God to a draw when God decided to use only human powers.”

Rather, I think it means that Jacob, in a desire to get back home from exile (something only God could make possible), determinedly worked through everything in his life that would have kept God from letting him to go back. When he was finally heading home, he testified to Laban about the honesty and integrity he had developed: “I bore the loss myself,” he said, if any of Laban’s flocks were torn by wild beasts or stolen. So we might say that Jacob was “wrestling” with God all those 20 years in exile, striving to become the kind of person God could safely send back to Canaan to continue the line of covenant promise. The wrestling match just before he got back home was a dramatic demonstration of what had been going on all along. God took on human form and limited powers in order to make that demonstration.

I’ll answer the second part of your question, about whether the Holy Spirit ever took on human form, in my next post.

Was Jesus the “angel of the Lord” who warned Joseph?

Q.  We were looking at the Christmas story in Matthew and noticed that Joseph was warned to go to Egypt by the “angel of the Lord.”  Now I know many contend that the “angel of the Lord” in the OT refers to a pre-incarnation Jesus.  And, Matthew is very tuned in to the OT.  So…..does this mean that Jesus warned Joseph?  I am guessing there is a Greek/Hebrew explanation for this.

I think there are a few reasons why it’s probably not actually Jesus, in the person of the “angel of the Lord,” warning Joseph in the Christmas story:

(1)  First, the text should probably be translated “an angel of the Lord” rather than “the angel of the Lord.”  Most contemporary English translations read this way, “an angel,” although some translations say “the angel.”  (For the Greek/Hebrew specifics, see the bottom of this post.)

(2)  Also, in Matthew this angel always appears in a dream.  In the First Testament the angel of the Lord tends to appear in person.  (Notice how, when an angel appears to Jacob in a dream, the phrase is “the angel of God” rather than “the angel of the Lord.”)

(3)  While some interpreters do believe that the “angel of the Lord” in the First Testament is a manifestation of the pre-incarnate Jesus, I think it’s better to consider it more generally a “theophany,” that is, an appearance of God in human form, without being any more specific than this.

So for these reasons I wouldn’t say that Jesus is warning Joseph to protect Jesus!

I hope you and your family had a merry Christmas.  And as the story of the flight into Egypt reminds us that Jesus became a refugee shortly after he was born, let us remember all those in our world today who are refugees with our help and prayers.

Giotto, “The Flight Into Egypt”

Specifics regarding translation:  Each of the three times the phrase occurs in the Joseph narrative (when the angel tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife; when the angel warns him to flee from Bethlehem; and when the angel tells him to return to Israel), “angel” appears in the nominative case in Greek with no article, which generally means an indefinite noun rather than a definite one, thus “an angel of the Lord.”  By contrast, the phrase in the First Testament for these theophanies is definite, “the angel of the Lord,” because “angel” is in the construct state and dependent on YHWH, which as a proper name is always definite and so makes “angel” definite as well.  If a Greek writer wanted to express in Greek that the noun was definite, using an article would be the clearest way to do this, but no article is present.

What’s the difference between mental illnesses and demonic possession?

Q. What is the difference between mental illnesses and demonic possession? I read the post on your blog about whether the “evil spirit from the Lord” that tormented Saul was “an actual spirit-being” or “a dark and foreboding disposition of the human spirit,” and I’m hoping you can expand on that distinction.  I’ve read in Acts about the girl who was possessed and could predict things until Paul cast the demon out. Is one sign of possession the ability to do supernatural things like that?

Let me say first, in light of the recent discussion on this blog of “metaphysical naturalism” and its denial of the supernatural, that I do believe, according to the Bible, that there are supernatural evil beings who seek to oppress people and keep them from turning to God and experiencing the life that God offers.  Anyone who doesn’t share this belief will not find your question, or my answer, meaningful, and so it probably would not be worth their time to read any further.

Second, also by way of background, I think it’s important to observe that the Bible itself distinguishes between mental illness and demonic possession.  It’s not the case that the biblical writers simply assumed that everything we would recognize today as mental illness was caused by demons.

For example, when Matthew describes the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry, he tells how “people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases . . . and he healed them.” Among those Jesus healed, Matthew says, were the seleniazomenoi and the daimonizomenoi.

The first term, seleniazomenoi, comes from the Greek term for “moon,” selene, and it can be translated literally as “moon-struck.”  The English equivalent is “lunatic,” and that is how many English Bibles translate the term.  Some translate it as “epileptic” instead, but I think it does refer to people with mental illnesses, which were thought in the ancient world to be caused by the influence of the moon.

The second term, daimonizomenoi, means to be oppressed by a daimon or demon, which the New Testament writers understand to be an evil spirit.  It’s important to note that they don’t actually use the term “possessed,” although they do depict Jesus and the apostles casting demons out of people, as if these had occupied and controlled them.

So then what is the essential distinction between mental illness and demonic oppression?  The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament offers a helpful insight into this, in its article on daimon.  It says that in the case of demonic oppression, “What is at issue is not merely sickness but a destruction and distortion of the divine likeness of man according to creation. The centre of personality, the volitional and active ego, is impaired by alien powers which seek to ruin the man and sometimes drive him to self-destruction.”

In other words, we can think of someone with a mental illness driving a car but having trouble finding their way through thick fog and drizzle.  Someone oppressed by a demon, on the other hand, is having to wrestle with the demon for control of the steering wheel to stay on the road.

This volitional aspect of demonic oppression is also seen in the way that many, thought not all, who suffer from it may have “opened the door” in some way by choosing to become involved in the occult.  (Or they may have exposed family members by doing this.)

The girl you mention in the book of Acts who could tell fortunes illustrates another distinction: demonic oppression may be characterized by the demons doing supernatural or superhuman things through the person affected.  Another biblical example is the man described in the gospels as “Legion,” who “had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him.”

A final observation I would make is based once again on an insight from the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  After confirming the observation that “in the NT not all sicknesses are attributed to demons,” it continues, “Nevertheless, it may be said that the existence of sickness in this world belongs to the character of the [present age] of which Satan is the prince.”  In other words, we suffer from illnesses, including mental illnesses, because the creation has not yet been redeemed from its bondage to evil, sin, and decay.

That being the case, we may rightly suspect that an evil influence is at work to aggravate a mental illness.  Even when it is not a situation of outright demonic oppression or possession, there could be demonic harassment. Throughout the centuries, in fact, many outstanding Christian leaders, writers, artists, and so forth have struggled with depression and similar mental illnesses.  Beyond the natural medical causes, there may well have been spiritual opposition designed to discourage and disable these people from fulfilling their God-given vocations.  Both the natural and the supernatural dimensions need to be kept in mind.  But spiritual opposition is not, in and of itself, demonic possession.

In conclusion, from a pastoral perspective (I was a pastor for over 20 years), I would encourage a person (or their family and friends, on their behalf) to seek spiritual deliverance from demonic oppression through the help of mature, reputable, qualified Christian leaders in cases where a sharp internal conflict of the will is evident (i.e. something “makes” the person do unpleasant and uncharacteristic things that they don’t want to do), where the person’s health and life has repeatedly been put at risk (like the boy described in the gospels whom a demon often tried to throw into the fire or into the water), and where superhuman phenomena are present.  These are not infallible indications, and each one individually could have a different explanation, so in-person, real-time discernment by experienced and spiritually mature advisors is required.

On the other hand, I would encourage a person to seek counseling and treatment for mental illness if they experience persistent symptoms such as depression, anxiety, confusion, troubling or irrational thoughts, etc.  Particularly if the person can’t just “shake it off,” they should get professional help and be open to the benefits of therapy and medication.  But I also believe that spiritual resources such as prayer and community support are vital for relief from mental illness and that they can make a big difference in the lives of those who suffer from it.

Those who are delivered from spiritual oppression or who find God’s grace to cope with mental illnesses are  able to offer encouragement to many others through the gifts God has given them.  To give just one example, Joseph Scriven wrote the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” out of his experience of long struggle with depression.  I hope and pray that any who read this post and recognize that they need help from God will find it through the loving community of God’s people and so become a blessing to others in the same way.